Madeleine Albright died just as the murderous historic forces that she had spent her career trying to quell are raging in Europe again, unleashed by a nemesis, Vladimir Putin, who she had consistently warned was a grave threat to peace.
The first female secretary of state was exiled twice as a child refugee from the country of her birth, the former Czechoslovakia, by fascist and communist tyranny. That experience and the impact it had on her family forged her destiny as an academic, a diplomat and an American patriot. It also informed her approach to post-Cold War Europe and the shattering conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo during her time in the Clinton administration, as well as her strong support for NATO expansion into former Warsaw Pact nations. As he held Ukraine hostage before the invasion, Putin sought to force the Western alliance to reverse that move east.
Albright’s passing on Wednesday comes at a moment when Europe is again being swept by fears of a belligerent Russia, mass refugee flows, civilian carnage and the fear of nuclear war as Putin’s invasion of Ukraine shatters 30 years of strategic stability.
Until the end of her life, Albright was sounding the alarm about Putin’s intentions and character and she predicted the strategic disaster and bloody resistance he would face if he invaded Ukraine.
“Instead of paving Russia’s path to greatness, invading Ukraine would ensure Mr. Putin’s infamy by leaving his country diplomatically isolated, economically crippled and strategically vulnerable in the face of a stronger, more united Western alliance,” Albright wrote in an essay in The New York Times on the eve of the war last month. “Ukraine is entitled to its sovereignty, no matter who its neighbors happen to be. In the modern era, great countries accept that, and so must Mr. Putin,” Albright wrote. “That is the message undergirding recent Western diplomacy. It defines the difference between a world governed by the rule of law and one answerable to no rules at all.”
Those words, some of the last Albright would publish, defined a diplomatic career characterized by staunch support for democracy and the right of people to live in freedom, but also a willingness to try to talk strongmen down, including Putin or the late North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Il, the father of the Stalinist state’s current dynastic leader, whom she had visited in 2000.
‘Smart, but a very bad person’
Albright had an early chance to examine Putin’s character, and she was the first senior US official to meet the new Russian President, early in 2000, soon after he took over from Boris Yeltsin.
She emerged from their first three-hour encounter in the Kremlin praising the Russian leader’s “can-do approach” as she sought ways to engage Moscow in order to avoid a return to the Cold War chill. But as she revealed in The New York Times last month, her private opinion, recorded as she flew home, was more scathing and ominous and has been borne out by subsequent events.
” ‘Putin is small and pale,’ I wrote, ‘so cold as to be almost reptilian,’ ” Albright recalled in the Times essay. She also quoted another of her impressions at the time that predicted more than 20 years of growing hostility to the West, which culminated in the invasion.
” ‘Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness,’ ” Albright wrote, quoting her impressions at the time.
Ironically, Albright used that meeting to try to convince Putin to show mercy in a war against separatists in the Russian republic of Chechnya, which involved a relentless bombardment that killed thousands of civilians. “Neither of us minced words on Chechnya,” she told reporters after failing to ease an offensive by Moscow that is now seen as a blueprint for the relentless bombing of civilians in Ukraine in a bid to break their will and resistance.
Albright was generally supportive of efforts to convince Russia that NATO did not pose a threat to its security – at a time when the Obama administration tried to “reset” relations with Moscow.
But by 2014, when Putin annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in what was, in hindsight, a rehearsal for his march into the rest of the country last month, Albright was again warning of the Russian leader’s wider ambitions.
“Putin is delusional,” she said on CNN’s “New Day” in March of that year. “I think either he does not have the facts, he’s being fed propaganda or his own propaganda,” she said, responding to Russia’s claims it had a right to be in Crimea, which mirror the Russian leader’s justification for the wider war eight years later.
Again, in 2016, Albright was warning of the need to confront Putin, calling him “smart, but a very bad person” in an interview with Austria’s Die Presse.
But Albright’s domestic political loyalties as a Democrat had occasionally led her to disregard her own instincts. In 2012, for instance, she argued that then-Republican presidential nominee and now-Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah didn’t know what he was talking about when he said Russia was the number one security threat. But unlike many others, she said “sorry.”
“I personally owe an apology to now-Sen. Romney,” Albright said at a hearing of the House Intelligence Committee in 2019. “We underestimated Russia, and Putin has put them back on the scene.”
A fervent Trump critic
Albright, a Georgetown University professor, had spent decades studying communist and fascist autocracy before she was plucked from relative obscurity to be then-President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations. That experience also informed her outspoken criticism of ex-President Donald Trump, who she warned was a threat to American democracy long before his denials of his 2020 election loss and incitement of the US Capitol insurrection.
“I am not calling him a fascist – I am saying he has undemocratic instincts that trouble me a lot,” she told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in 2018. Albright put her comments about Trump in the context of the need to confront anti-democratic movements early on, before they mushroomed into dangerous extremism. Trump’s anti-immigrant demagoguery and hostility to refugees troubled her, especially as someone who had sought a haven from tyranny in the US.
At the end of her life, Albright made no secret of her fear that vicious political forces of extremism, which had defined her destiny and caused so much carnage across the decades in Europe, were stirring again.
“I am in my 80s and I have seen an awful lot. It took me a long time to find my voice,” Albright told Zakaria in the 2018 interview.
“I did not have a high-level job until I was 55 years old. And I’m not going to shut up, frankly. I do think it’s important for those who have seen these kind of things to put out a warning.”